Jerusalem and the Follies of Trump's Embrace

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Even if events do not immediately spiral out of control, the president’s announcement will have heightened tensions and sown the seeds for future instability.

To understand why this might be the case, it is worth remembering why this conversation is taking place at all right now. The necessity for the U.S. President to address the issue of the embassy and Jerusalem every six months is not a Trump invention. It is a consequence of the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in October of 1995 by an overwhelming 93-5 majority in the Senate and 374-37 in the House, calling on the embassy to move to Jerusalem unless the president uses a waiver for national security reasons. The push for that legislation in the early 1990s came not from the Israeli leadership of the time, but from the way this issue plays out in American domestic politics and the biases of the key lobbying groups, notably AIPAC. It was an initiative at the time which cornered and undermined the peace efforts of the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who privately opposed the move).

The circumstances today are different. The current Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, is seeking to close the door on any realistic peace deal and to gain acceptance and cover for the permanent disenfranchisement and bantustanization of the Palestinians.

Still, the story of the Jerusalem Embassy Act is instructive. It speaks to the American inability to be an effective, let alone honest, broker on this issue, as being a permanent structural feature rather than an ephemeral Trumpian blip.

Trump suggested that his move was a departure from the failed policies of the past, in reality he is putting that same policy on steroids, a policy of putting America’s thumb down on the scales in favour of the stronger party, Israel.

Trump’s moves are further cornering the Palestinian leadership and generating a demand among the public for a game-changing shift in strategy away from the current comfort zone of an American-Israeli defined peace process. That includes the need to sufficiently overcome debilitating internal Palestinian divisions.

Trump is doing the Palestinians a favour by making the centrepiece of this Jerusalem—the issue which resonates most broadly in Arab communities, and also amongst Muslims and Christians (as well as with Jews of course), and the issue around which people are more likely to be mobilized. The new Saudi leadership, given its particular closeness to the Trump administration and given its custodianship of the two holy mosques, is especially exposed and vulnerable should it appear to be complicit in selling out al-Aqsa and al-Quds. Trump’s mention in his speech of the Summit in Riyadh earlier this year will fuel speculation of Saudi culpability.

Over the summer when Israel tried to unilaterally change arrangements at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, there was perhaps an unprecedented large-scale mobilization of Palestinian Jerusalemites, Palestinian citizens of Israel and West Bankers which, with Jordanian and international support, ultimately led to an Israeli capitulation.

That was a timely reminder that Palestinians do have agency, that mobilization on the local and regional level matters, and that what is said in the Briefing Room in Washington ultimately counts for less than what is done on the ground in the Holy Land.

Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, based in New York and London, and is a former Israeli negotiator.

Image: Reuters